Pick one to discriminate against...
Two weeks ago, my wife’s thirty year old brother died.
One minute he was bouncing around enjoying life and then 48 hours after feeling a bit poorly he passed through coma and onto death leaving behind a young wife and a two year old daughter.
Naturally, I was away on business and Marcia had to deal with everything herself.
I gave her the support I could, a few sympathetic phone calls and paid for the funeral. Conscience salved I concentrated on work, only marginally interested in the as yet undisclosed cause of such a sudden departure. People here drop dead or get killed all the time. This one was a bit closer to home but I hardly knew the guy and only vaguely recollect an affable individual who had once engaged me in a conversation the details of which I have forgotten.
I have always considered myself free of prejudice. I might have held a few extreme views as a teenager but that was ignorance. Age has a way of tempering attitudes, of eroding the sharp edges of intolerance and besides, is hate really worth the effort?
Racists are insecure. I am areligious, if not irreligious at times and to me, even taking a couple of hours off a week to attend church is an extreme notion, never mind explosive underwear. I am aware of Aids but look at it the same way an airline passenger does the risks of flying. We know we can crash and burn but the chances of it, compared to dying of Malaria in this part of the world for example, are remote. I suppose I thought I was free of prejudice but then again, my convictions had never really been tested.
I was really shocked, therefore, when Marcia phoned me a couple of days ago and told me her brother had been HIV Positive.
Blimey. Aids is something you get if you screw around, were homosexual or a needle swapping drug addict. Normal people didn’t catch it. And especially not your wife’s brother. He had a good job and his wife, widow now, is a bank official. They were normal people building a life for themselves and doing quite well.
Why should the fact his death can now be attributed to Aids, as opposed to some other lethal ailment, make it feel so much closer to home than when I first received the news of his passing?
Before I had time to work out exactly how I felt, the second bombshell dropped.
Marcia took her sister-in-law and two year old niece to a clinic and had them tested. The child tested negative. The young mother was positive.
This was tragic news and even I could appreciate the enormity of it. One minute, a normal life filled with hope for the future, now sudden loss and a death sentence on top. How can you look a child in the eye knowing that having lost her father, and inconsolable to boot, she will inevitably lose her mother as well?
Marcia went on. Now the mother was known to be HIV positive, a stigma had attached to her. Her own family, while sympathetic, was not exactly keen to welcome her back. As far as her husband’s family was concerned, the widow could look after herself. Even though the child is proven HIV negative, no-one is cuddling her anymore. Stigma here is evidently hereditary.
Suddenly I could see where this was going. The child is Marcia’s niece. Marcia could not stand idly by and see her consigned to life’s rubbish tip, the flotsam of human misery washed up on the shores of prejudice. I support two orphanages here so could easily contemplate the child’s desperate future in all its cold, heartless clarity.
I told her, ‘Look Marcia, I understand. One more mouth to feed won’t make any difference, if you want us to take the kid on, I’ll go with that’
‘Two mouths’ says Marcia.
Despite what the less informed may think, and I included myself in this group before the last couple of days of frantic research, Aids is not a death sentence. It is in a way but it isn’t the same as a last cigarette in some forlorn courtyard followed by the firing squad’s bullets thumping into a blind-folded body. Laura is only HIV positive and, since her daughter is negative, one can only assume that infection was recent. She could live for years if not decades. Except that unlike the relatively merciful rapid dispatch by a hail of lead, Laura will not only have to deal with her own fears and understandably volatile emotions, she will have to cope with her expulsion from mainstream society. Imagine looking at your darling baby wondering if you will ever see her grow up? Imagine realising that through no fault of her own, she will never enjoy invitations to fellow classmate's birthday parties? What will happen to her when you are gone? People can be really evil sometimes.
I rang my mother for some advice and she asked, ‘would you drink from the same glass?’ Good question I thought, would I? The thought of living with someone I knew to be HIV positive was disturbing, if not terrifying and really called into question my self professed tolerance, compassion and lack of prejudice.
My Mother advised me not to get involved. She said I had a responsibility to my nine year old son, to Marcia and the soon to be born Alexander. I interpreted this as a Mother’s natural instinct to protect her offspring from any form of danger so will naturally ignore her advice.
Laura and little Cila will come and live with us and I do not care what anyone else thinks. We will not only use the same glass, but the same plates, cups, cutlery and linen. We will sit on the same chairs, relax on the same sofas and swim in the same swimming pool. We will watch the same programmes on the TV and will laugh at the same jokes and if either of them needs a hug, I will give them one.
Laura, sadly, may have a more acute sense of her mortality but in my house, we will all enjoy whatever time we have left.
As a family.